Barrow wars: competing for territory in the world of fruit and veg

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The difference between a fixed trader – generally but not always a shopkeeper – and a costermonger became the key distinction in a case heard before Mr Woolrych at Westminster Police court in early December 1870.

William Haynes, a fruiter and potato dealer with premises on  Churton Street and Tachbrook Street in Pimlico, was summoned to explain why he had obstructed the carriageway. He was prosecuted under the ‘new Street Act’ for ‘allowing two barrows to rest longer than necessary for loading or unloading’. The court heard he had left them there for five hours.

His defense lawyer (Mr Doveton Smyth) accepted the facts of the case but tried to argue that since his client sold apples from these barrows he might be classed as a costermonger, and therefore be allowed to do so.

Mr Woolrych might have admired the creativity of the brief but he rejected his reasoning. The word ‘costermonger’ might have derived from “costard,” a large apple’, as the lawyer suggested but ‘that term had become obsolete’.

There was ‘no doubt the present acceptation of the word costermonger was an itinerant trader who hawked perishable articles, such as fruit, vegetables , and fish, etc., and in the course of that vocation went from place to place’.

The magistrate pointed out that Mr Haynes owned two shops and didn’t move them around. Mr Woolrych left the fruiterer off the fine but insisted he pay the costs of the summons. The lawyer said he would take the question of ‘whether a tradesman cannot be a costermonger if he please’ to the Court of Queen’s Bench for a higher authority to determine.

Two weeks later Haynes was back in court and again defended by Mr Doveton Smyth. Again the charge was the same, as was the defense. This time the defendant was fined.

Two years later, in April 1872 William Haynes was one of three Pimlico greengrocers brought before the Westminster magistrate for obstructing the pavements.

The court heard that they occupied premises ‘where costermongers are allowed to assemble in accordance with the  provisions of the Metropolitan Street Act’ and that the area was a ‘a regular market on a Saturday night’. Once again Mr Smythe presented the argument that his clients had as much right to trade from stalls outside their shops as the costermongers did to sell from barrows nearby, so long as ‘did not infringe the police regulations’.

But it seems they did infringe the law.

Inspector Turpin from B Division said that Haynes’ stall was fully 50 feet long while Joseph Haynes (possibly his son or brother), had one that was 35 feet long. Both stalls forced pedestrians to walk out into the road to get past.

The defendants pleaded guilty, promised to ‘make better arrangements’ in the future, and were fined between 10 and 40s each, plus costs. They paid up but with some protest.

This was not something that was going to go away however. The greengrocers could afford to keep paying fines and may well have thought it a necessary expense to be able to compete for trade with the costermongers.

Ultimately, as we know, the grocer in his shop would win the battle for the streets with the coster and his barrow. The latter were eventually restricted from selling wherever they liked and confined to fixed markets; the grocers developed a network of independent shops that ultimately grew into small and then larger chains, displacing very many of the independent traders that they competed with.

Today we have a high street  with very few independent grocers and greengrocers; most of that business has been captured by the supermarkets.

[from Morning Post, Wednesday 7 December 1870; Morning Post, Friday 19 April 1872]

 

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